Federal appeals court rejects ministry’s defamation claim against Southern Poverty Law Center

By: - August 2, 2021 2:53 pm

The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Courthouse in Atlanta, home to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A federal appeals court has rejected a Florida-based Christian ministry’s claim that the Southern Poverty Law Center defamed it by including it on a list of hate groups.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously upheld a ruling by an Alabama trial judge rejecting Coral Ridge Ministries Media’s claim against the Montgomery-based SPLC center, which monitors hate groups and engages in civil-rights litigation.

The 11th Circuit hears appeals arising in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

The center had included the Fort Lauderdale ministry on its “hate map” because of its anti-LGBT positions. The ministry argued that most people would understand “hate groups” to mean “groups that engage in violence and crime.”

But the appeals court noted that the SPLC itself defines the term on its website, as “an organization or collection of individuals that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

The center adds: “An organization does not need to have engaged in criminal conduct or have followed their speech with actual unlawful action to be labeled a hate group. We do not list individuals as hate groups, only organizations.”

A video posted on the ministry’s website, for example, takes on “gender confusion,” which it asserts “endangers freedom and destroys lives.’

The 11th Circuit, in an opinion handed down last week, cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan, which held that to prove defamation a public figure like the ministry needs to show that a publisher, in this case the SPLC, “entertained serious doubts as to the truth” of a challenged statement.

Given the center’s publicly disseminated definition, “it is hard to see how SPLC’s use of the term would be misleading. Regardless of the commonly understood meaning of hate group, and regardless of whether SPLC’s definition is the same, the complaint did not present any factual allegations that would allow us to infer that SPLC’s subjective state of mind was sufficiently culpable,” Wilson wrote.

The court rejected related claims against Amazon.com Inc. and subsidiaries for refusing to let the ministry participate in a program that lets customers designate charities to receive a small portion of their payments for purchases. Amazon bars participation by organizations that “engage in, support, encourage, or promote intolerance, hate, terrorism, violence, money laundering, or other illegal activities.” It specially bars organizations that the SPLC includes on its hate map.

The ministry argued that violated the First Amendment and Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which bars discrimination in publications on the basis of “race, color, religion, or national origin.”

“We hold that the district court was correct in finding that Coral Ridge’s interpretation of Title II would violate the First Amendment by essentially forcing Amazon to donate to organizations it does not support,” Judge Wilson wrote.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.